Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Eisley - The Valley (2011)

You have to admire the persistence of artists, especially those who were born to be so.  Many a musician well past their so-called prime have been accused of being washed-up, has-been players who shouldn't even be out embarrassing themselves on the club circuit, let alone trying to recapture their "glory days".  Other musicians get out there and make great music but fail to make an impact and quit out of sheer frustration due to the lack of recognition of their art.  But for those who were truly made to be musicians, it's difficult for them to get out of the craft, even when life comes at them from all sides and makes things more "interesting" than they might be used to.  This is when the rubber meets the road, and when only the strong survive.

The difficulty and drama Eisley experienced from 2007 forward has been well documented, so I won't write a book here about the events that caused the band's 3rd studio full-length release to be so delayed since 2007's "Combinations" album, the release that was to catapult the band into super-stardom (in indie-pop terms, anyway), and get Eisley the recognition they so rightfully deserve as one of the reigning female-fronted bands of this style.  Sadly, though "Combinations" did raise their profile somewhat, it failed to garner the band the fame and record sales that the record company was probably hoping for, and as a result, the relationship between Eisley and Warner Bros was likely tenuous prior to the end of their contract came up in 2010.  Add the personal tragedies and drama within the ranks of the band, and it's easy to see why it took nearly 3 years between writing and recording to finally get their 3rd album out to the fans.

One thing that must be said about Eisley is that they certainly know who they are.  While the band's sound has shifted away from the slightly more obtuse indie-pop of earlier efforts to a much more radio-ready version of their sound, it's still immediately recognizable as Eisley, in part due to the consistency of their material, but also the lovely voices of the DuPree sisters and their effortless delivery (despite their assertions to the contrary).  The band still combines a somewhat tough (for indie-pop, anyway) guitar delivery with delicious vocal harmonies, acoustic and mellow passages, perfect pop melodies, and tight instrumentation.  What has changed since the earlier releases is that they have a much more "focused" sound, than they did early on.  Some songs lean more toward the melancholy while others are more "up" or happy sounding, but nothing sounds too far from a middle ground that vacillates between "hopeful yet pensive" and "sad but optimistic".

Guitar is just right for this kind of music - the sort of tightly played, yet slightly lazy rhythm playing that embodies what makes this kind of music so much fun to listen to.  It's deceptively simple, the kind of thing that might give an aspiring musician (who's also a fan) the impression that they could run up on stage and join in with the band and jam out.  At the same time, it's also concise in its presentation, well executed and content to be an integral part of the instrumentation, but not overbearing in the mix.  Piano and keyboard work is excellent as always, with Stacy's playing on this album reflecting an almost "bouncy" quality that keeps the mood light, even in the more somber songs.  Bass guitar sounds good alongside the guitars and drums, and is well played, though as expected with this style, not flashy or doing anything overly complicated.  Drum work is competent and well suited to the material, with the appropriate level of weight when needed, and more dynamic when the songs call for it.  The additional orchestral flourishes (such as is found in "Kind", for example) are a nice touch, and sound great in context with the material.  As always, vocally the material is a delight.  While Chauntelle maintains that her vocals aren't her strength, I personally feel all 3 sisters sound fantastic, and that perhaps that imperfection is part of the charm of the overall vocal sound - there's a certain feeling present in a voice that isn't classically trained that you just don't get from vocalists who are trained to avoid certain personal inflections or inclinations.

I've been listening to this album pretty solid for months now, and I think it's a strong release.  One understands the context of the lyrics better when having some knowledge of the events leading up to the album's release, which isn't necessary for interpreting them, but certainly gives the listener the upper hand.  The album's penchant for lyrics dwelling on broken or lost love is both a strength and a weakness, in that the common theme works well, but by the end of the album it can be a bit too much drama.  After all, how many songs can one write about the dissolution of a marriage and love relationship before they've said everything that can or needs to be said about the subject?  Still, that's only a minor criticism, as there's enough depth and breadth to the songs that the subject matter isn't entirely stale by disc's end.  I do miss the more obtuse lyrics of some of the earlier releases, and I also miss the more broad scope of material as well.  This album, as I said, is very focused in sound.  Don't expect to hear a "Marvelous Things" or "Lost at Sea" here, because you won't.  There's far more "Telescope Eyes", "Invasion", or perhaps "Golly Sandra" in the material here.  One of the things that initially attracted me to the band was the sort of weird vibe that "Marvelous Things" and its video had.  That's not what made me stay hooked, however - it was the vocal harmonies and the combination of songs that were incredibly tuneful and memorable all at once.  So while the band has in some ways "lost their innocence", they still have the memorable and tuneful material in droves, so a record like this is infinitely listenable.  I guess the best way to say it is this: this isn't my favorite Eisley release, but I consider it a triumphant return for a band that was in the throes of personal tragedy, and certainly a record that any fan of Eisley should eat up without hesitation.  Fans of indie-pop in general undoubtedly already know of this album, and likely already have it in their collection.  If you're just getting into the style, I'd recommend getting "Room Noises" first, if only to see the range of the band before delving into either "Combinations" or this platter.  Otherwise, I have no reservations recommending this strongly.


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